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A Big Problem With Fill-in-the-Blank Wills

It's tempting, I know. You're trying to save money. You don't have lots of property to leave to others. Your estate isn't complicated.

last will and testament

So you go to an office supply store, bookstore or online legal site, grab a standard will form and fill it in yourself.

That's what Ann Aldrich of Keystone Heights, Fla., did back in 2004. She left her property to her sister, Mary Jane Eaton, and added in a clause stating that if Eaton died before she did, the property she listed should go to her brother.

As it turned out, Eaton died first, and Aldrich inherited from her.

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That's where it got complicated.

After Aldrich died a couple of years later, other relatives sued, saying that the clause where Aldrich left the estate to her brother if her sister died first didn't include the inheritance from Eaton.

Why? Because in the will, Aldrich detailed the property in her estate, which included life insurance, the contents of her house and a car, among other things. She made no provision for "after-acquired property," or anything she got after she wrote the will. Therefore, the suit argued, the money Aldrich got from Eaton wasn't included in the bequest to the brother: The brother should get Aldrich's stuff, but not Eaton's stuff.

Last month, the Supreme Court of Florida ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The will wasn't specific enough, the court said, to include the bequest from Eaton, and the court had to base its decision on the "four corners of the document." One justice even wrote that, though a separate note Aldrich wrote after her sister's death, in which she gave the bequest from Eaton to her brother, displayed her intent, the court couldn't consider it because it wasn't official. The will was official. It controlled the outcome.

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As one justice noted, the real shame here was that Aldrich presumably was trying to save money when she used a standard form instead of consulting a lawyer. Because she didn't fill out or modify the form correctly, the court couldn't honor her real wishes in leaving the money from Eaton to her brother.

As the justice wrote: "I therefore take this opportunity to highlight a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of utilizing pre-printed forms and drafting a will without legal assistance. As this case illustrates, that decision can ultimately result in the frustration of the testator's intent, in addition to the payment of extensive attorney's fees - the precise results the testator sought to avoid in the first place."

Adds Stuart Cohen, director of AARP Foundation Litigation, "It's advisable to always consult a local attorney familiar with specific state requirements who will assist you in securing the result you want."


Photo credit: maybefalse/iStockPhoto


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